Saturday, July 28, 2012

Ever Try Writing a Short Stage Play?

The Samuel French Off Off Broadway Festival which began in 1975 is one of the nations most established and highly regarded short play festivals.  In 2009, over 700 short play entries from across the nation were submitted to the competition to select the top 40.  From these 40 entries performed over a week in New York, six short plays were chosen by a panel of theater experts and emerged as the winners.  They received a fully staged production in New York, publication, and licensing contracts. Samuel French Inc. states that the festival “fosters the work of early career writers”. Since anyone can think of himself as an early career writer, why not?

Actually, The Samuel French Festival is at the top end of the trend in the theater community at large in the US of embracing the short play.  All across the country, professional and amateur community theater companies are sponsoring short play competitions and productions. Is this because the attention span of audiences is getting shorter? Who knows? But the trend towards festivals of shorter plays is an opportunity for writers of all kinds to get more exposure than they are likely to enjoy submitting short stories for publication and waiting endlessly for a response, and all too often never getting one..

Just don’t under-estimate the level of skill required to write an effective short play. A short play is a story, no question.  But, it is a story presented almost totally in dialogue. The playwright sees the action in his/her head, provides stage directions to create the initial setting, and to lay out the character interactions as the play unfolds.  But the story is specifically designed to end up as a  live visual performance on a stage before an audience.  The audience is not privy to stage directions included in the script, nor are they provided with the thoughts and feelings of the characters except as they observe them in the actors on stage. So, writing a play involves embedding back story, exposition, and emotion in the words the characters speak, and in their physical actions on stage. The overall effect is collaborative effort involving director, actors, and the rest of the artistic team. But, it still starts with written words on a piece of paper or a computer screen. It is a story, and the techniques of the story telling craft apply.

Are stage play stories different in some fundamental way? Not really. Here are brief “reviews” of the six short plays that emerged from the winnowing process employed by the 2009 Off Off Broadway Festival: (These are sketchy descriptions of subject matter, and not meant to even approach the workings of the plays, to reveal endings or to interpret meanings.)

Drop : Mike and Ric (20-30 years old) are seated in the lead car of a roller coaster stuck at the top of a steep incline.  Ric offers reassurance to Mike who reveals that  he is afraid of heights. Jackson, apparently a repairman, appears suddenly climbing around in the scaffolding. He opines that “you gotta put yourself in danger sometimes”. Clever dialogue. A twist at the end.

The Education of Macoloco: Macoloco informs the audience that they are about to see him educated by his mother Anessa at various ages: eight, thirteen, twenty-five.  Anessa educates by requiring the boy to fire back answers to questions like: How do you know a pig is having an orgasm? The boy’s absentee father appears and speaks first in a thick german accent, then french, then russian then italian. 

Realer Than That: Jared and Colleen (both age 26) meet in an economy motel room. Colleen pounces on him and aggressively pursues sex. Back story emerges from the dialogue. They were high school lovers. She married two months after graduation.  They haven’t seen each other since. Complications ensue as Jared and Colleen reveal how the facts of their early relationship have morphed into alternate realities.

The Student: Hugh Simms (about 40) is a writing teacher and aspiring author. Burt, a 50 ish businessman is taking Hugh’s writing course in evening adult school.  Their discussion of  the story that Burt has written reveals much.  Hugh thinks of himself as a failure. Burt is taking the class not to eventually get published, but to understand himself by writing what is in his heart.

Thucydides: A soldier on his way back to Iraq meets a Princeton student in an airport. Their conversation reveals the differences in their lives and in their destinations.

Just Knots: Dennis and Patty (both 20s-40s) meet at an indoor kiosk in a mall. Dennis sells his ability to tie knots. Dennis by the end understands why Patty wants to employ him.

Seeing a play script will help in addressing questions you may have about format, or about how somebody who knows what they’re doing laid out a story.  You can buy the Off Off Broadway Festival Plays 34th Series at Amazon:


Why try to write in the short play format instead of continuing to work on your short story?

 Because the opportunities for exposure for your work seems to be greater these days in the theater world.  Feedback on your efforts seems to come quicker, and it is specific to the immediate effectiveness of the story whether it’s in the form of reactions of an adjudicator for a festival, by a theatre group or by just friends gathered around a table. The possibility of seeing your characters alive on stage will light your fire every time.


Jeri said...

I wrote my first short play when I taught a playwrighting unit in a high school creative class. Needless to say it was an eye opening experience! I've often thought of trying to write another, but haven't done so yet. I have seen lots of interesting contests that make the idea seem pretty tempting.

Larry Crane said...

Early in my writing experience I was sort of discouraged from straying too far from straight prose writing efforts -- as if writing for the stage was territory to explore only very carefully. Now, I'm thinking writers should try everything (with your eyes wide open of course).